In these chapters we are first introduced to Cole Matthews, a juvenile delinquent, who is on the way to an Alaskan village to be subjected to Circle Justice—a term we only later come to understand. The novel opens in the middle of the action, as Cole is travelling on a ship with Garvey, a parole officer of Tlingit Indian origin, and Edwin, an elderly Tlingit Indian who is helping with the Circle Justice process for Cole.
A flashback explains to us how Cole got to Alaska in the first place. A native of Minnesota, he had been in the juvenile justice system for quite some time, and his wealthy and well-connected parents usually would get him out of trouble with the law. Recently, however, Cole broke into a store illegally, but when he bragged about it to one of his classmates, Peter Driscal, Peter turned him in. In revenge, Cole beat Peter up very badly, causing Peter head trauma and a permanent speech problem. Cole was taken back into juvenile detention. When Garvey, his juvenile detention officer, proposes that he choose Circle Justice instead of the possibility of being tried in an adult court, Cole immediately starts looking into the option.
The group of three arrives on the island, and Edwin warns Cole that he could possibly die on the island if he doesn’t find food and keep warm in the winter. Cole seems unfazed and plans his escape. He is first told of the Spirit Bear that roams in these areas, and Cole says that if he saw the Spirit Bear, he would kill it. Edwin gives Cole an "at.óow," a Tlingit Indian blanket that symbolizes trust and friendship.
As Edwin and Garvey leave, having set up the area for Cole, Cole begins to reminisce about how he had to feign his remorse to Garvey and to the members of the circle in order to get approval for Circle Justice. When the scene flashes back to the island, Cole is covering the entire shelter his parents and Garvey had provided for him in gas. He then lights a match and burns the shelter, a symbol of any attachment to those who he felt didn’t really care about him. As he sees everything go up in flames, he realizes the error of his rash choice.
As Cole sullenly stares into the burning flames, he begins to remember his relationship with Garvey. Cole explains to Garvey in this flashback scene how much he resents his parents, especially after their divorce. He reveals how they drink a lot and feel that nothing he does is good enough for them. When his father drinks, he hits Cole repeatedly and abuses him in a drunken rage. Back on the island, the fire is burning as brightly as ever, and Cole decides to swim to nearby islands in search of others who can give him a ride out of this wilderness.
Cole is still struggling to swim to another island in the freezing water. He recounts in his head the various circles that he had to participate in before heading off to the island. These include a “Healing Circle,” a “Circle of Justice,” a “Circle of Understanding,” and even a “Sentencing Circle.” Frustrated with so many circles, Cole protests to Garvey, who wisely responds, “Life is a circle.”
The bulk of the chapter describes the “Hearing Circle,” which was organized in the public library with the input of the entire community. It is an interesting event where community members come and hold hands in a type of prayer group in order to ask for Cole’s healing and justice. Each member holds a feather in turn to speak and then passes it on to others in the group. Present are community members interested in improving safety, Cole’s parents who are bewildered about his situation, and Peter Driscal—the boy who Cole beat up—who is particularly distraught. For the first time, it seems that Cole is questioning why he is there.
The most striking point of analysis in the first four chapters is that of the author’s use of flashback throughout the text. The author begins the story in media res (in the middle of the action), and the reader is thrust upon the small skiff headed to a remote island, along with Cole, and his two aides in Circle Justice—Edwin and Garvey. At first, it seems like the background story is less important than this narrative—that the wilderness adventures of Cole will be the crux of the novel—but the reader quickly sees that this concept of “Circle Justice” has roots that began far before Cole set off from Minneapolis to a remote island in Alaska. The author thus places us in the midst of Cole’s thoughts as he replays the series of tragic and unlikely events that led him to this particular island in Alaska, where he will face what seems to be the greatest challenge of his life.
This point about flashback leads to another central analytic concept for these early chapters: narration. The author narrates from the third person but is omniscient, meaning that the reader has insight into the inner workings of Cole’s mind. One can see the contradictions that he faces as he tries to “fake” his genuine desire for forgiveness and “Circle Justice,” but the reader gets to explore them and judge them from Cole’s own perspective. Interestingly, one does not have insight into other characters, so the reader is placed in the unlikely situation of on the one hand “rooting” for Cole, in the sense that his thoughts are what we read and understand. On the other hand, however, the reader is repulsed by his actions—by his violent actions towards Peter, by his disregard for Garvey’s kind actions, and by his hypocrisy in faking his way through the “Circle Justice” process. The reader is caught in this paradox, which captures the author’s own ambiguity towards his protagonist.
On the sentence level, the author uses a multitude of literary devices in order to bring the reader into the wilderness setting. He appeals actively to the senses. For instance, the novel’s opening evokes a dreary, foreboding scene, as Cole faces a “cold September wind,” as his handcuffs “bit at his wrists each time the small craft slapped into another wave,” and as the “gray-matted sky hung like a bad omen.” The author is not afraid to use similes with “like” or “as” to make the comparison explicit, and there are several metaphors, such as when Cole, as narrator, refers to Edwin and Garvey as “fossils.”
The author’s use of dialogue also gives insight into the emotions of the characters. Cole’s terse and rapid responses to Edwin or Garvey’s questions strike the ready as angry and rash, whereas the other adults in the story tend to use longer and more thoughtful sentences. Although we have insight into Cole's thoughts, the author still captures Cole's dialogue with many quotations, usually terse statements by the protagonist.
In Chapter 4, in particular, it is interesting how Cole gives a longer, more thoughtful answer than he does on the island, since he is trying to deceive those around him. However, his anger and his deceitfulness are known to the reader. The dialogue during the flashback is also particularly interesting because the reader knows the ultimate decision of the circle, which was to send Cole to Alaska. The question in the reader's mind, then, is how that decision was made, and this engages the reader much more deeply with the psychology and group dynamic of Circle Justice.